Do your local media outlets represent the stories, issues and people of your community?
The authors behind a pilot study commissioned by the Federal Communications Commission were gearing up to answer this important question.
The study’s main objective? To investigate whether whether local news outlets were meeting the information needs of their communities, particularly regarding women and people of color. Titled “Critical Information Needs” (CIN), the study was scheduled to conduct field test in “ethnically diverse” Columbia, S.C., Colorlines.com reported.
But after being met with a wave of alleged hate mail, death threats and growing backlash from a mix of conservative radio journalists, mainstream columnists, an FCC comissioner and Republicans, the inquiry was silently put to rest.
So, did the FCC have any grounds to seek this data in the first place?
Well, according to journalist Carla Murphy, a 2012 liteature review commissioned by the FCC and co-authored by the now-defunct study’s lead researcher Lewis Friedland uncovered the following:
- The FCC’s concept of using media ownership as a key measure of whether “participation” and “diversity” are actually happening in media is outdated in the Internet era.
- There is “a severe shortage of research,” directly addressing how critical (job opportunities) and emergency (what to do and where to go during a hurricane) information needs are being met for “minority communities, non-English speakers, the disabled and those of lower income.
One of the major issues that the CIN study presented to critics was the inquiry’s intended “census”‘ of local TV, radio and newspaper newsrooms to determine how diverse staffs were and how newsrooms chose what stories and topics to cover.
Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) explained his reservations to Colorlines.com.
“I don’t understand how talking to newsroom managers about their staff relates to the FCC’s mandate around underserved communities and minority broadcast ownership,” Cavender said. “What is defined as an ‘underserved community’ would be my first question.”
“In broad-based terms, making sure that all communities within a given market are being served is a worthy topic and the RTDNA doesn’t have a problem with that in theory,” he added.
“But again, we have a problem with incursion into the news process. Those judgments are better made by news managers, not government bureaucrats.”
As far as being accountable for its own staff makeup, Cavender revealed that the Radio Television Digital News Association does conduct a count of male and female newsroom staff, but most media outlets, itself included, would likely refuse to view any extensive internal research to be “proprietary” information.
“No station will share what they find out about themselves publicly because if folks across the street get ahold of that, it’s not a good thing,” he said.
It seems like what the FCC considered an academic process involving scientific and rigorous collection of data, the study’s opponents considered government overreach.
Should local news outlets be investigated for a lack of diversity? Or is that the responsibility of the news outlets themselves?